2015.5 Volvo XC60: Go Anywhere From Your Dashboard
A mid-year refresh adds new connectivity to a familiar user experience.
It's rare that an automaker makes any sort of mid-year change. With the exception of the vaunted 1964.5 Mustang, half birthdays don't really get celebrated in the auto industry. But things are apparently a bit different in Sweden, and the entire Volvo lineup got an important refresh this fall.
Internet connectivity, smartphone remote control, and telematics are now standard on every 2015.5 Volvo, under the banner of Sensus Connect and Volvo On Call. Drivers can now start their Volvos remotely using a smartphone, stream podcasts from the dashboard, and find reviews for nearby businesses. Consider it a halv födelsedag gift.
I got a chance to drive the 2015.5 Volvo XC60 (starting MSRP: $42,400; $52,225 as equipped) on a road trip, and its built-in connectivity kept me company on a long, solo drive. But in between listening to Fresh Air podcasts and streaming whatever station in LA that happened to playing Taylor Swift, I still had some time to think about the internet's place in the car—and why there's been an explosion of dedicated data plans coming to dashboards.
Volvo's addition of a permanent AT&T data connection is part of a growing trend among wireless carriers, automakers, and content providers to entice customers to add another line to an existing plan. After all, your carrier has already sold you and everyone else in your family a phone, so the only way to get new subscribers is to either raise the birth rate or start signing up inanimate objects. The car is the next frontier.
A constant connection also gives car manufacturers access to real-time vehicle diagnostics. In an era where software determines how well your car runs, online access lets automakers flash updates to your engine or transmission just as easily as an app can automatically download an update on your phone.
A data plan also eliminates the hassle of pairing a phone to access internet-based infotainment. That's good for drivers, who don't want to deal with finicky interfaces just to stream FKA Twigs or Hank Williams. It's also good for streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Stitcher. Since a lot of media consumption happens in the car, hassle-free in-car internet gets more ears for more hours—and helps content providers sell more advertising.
Enter Volvo. After an attempt at installing aftermarket, third-party, Android-based systems in cars last year, the automaker is back with an infotainment interface of its own design. Unlike 4G systems from Audi and GM, Volvo's Sensus Connect runs on an AT&T 3G connection.
Sensus Connect puts your smartphone's capabilities in the car, adding familiar streaming services like Pandora, Stitchr, Rdio, and TuneIn. Glympse allows you to broadcast your location over social media, a Wikipedia app uses your location to let you know when and where George Washington slept nearby, Park and Pay helps you find a free space in a garage, and both Yelp and Local Search let you explore your surroundings without subjecting yourself to subpar pizza.
Volvo On Call, on the other hand, puts your car on your smartphone. You can check to see how much gas you have left, lock your doors, warm up the car, and even see when you need to schedule your next service.
The first six months of both services are free—you can add anywhere between 12 and 54 additional months at prices that range from $16.60/month to $12.50/month. Depending on how often you drive and how cold it gets where you live, the services might actually end up being a good deal. Your phone plan might charge you extra for using enough data to stream audio throughout your commute, and installing a remote starter will set you back upwards of $100. You could get both for the same price you'd pay for satellite radio.
Is Volvo's setup worth it? Well, at first glance, the user interface appears anything but intuitive. A distant seven-inch screen is controlled by a single jog wheel that also contains "OK" and "Exit/Back" buttons. Physical buttons bring up individual functions, from navigation to audio, and it's possible to quickly enter text by turning the jog wheel or by tapping it out on the phone-style alphanumeric keypad—the same way you'd write a text message on a flip phone. The buttons on the center console all appear tiny and close together.
Initially, I longed for a touchscreen and wondered how the whole of the internet could be condensed into such a clunky format. But after a few days using Sensus Connect, I found myself quickly able to perform complex functions—like searching for a podcast, or entering in the name of a restaurant—with barely a glance at the screen. Somehow, Volvo created an infotainment system that's deceptively user friendly.
Sure, it had some hiccups: Occasionally, it took a minute or two for the 3G connection to come online after I started the car. Voice-to-text wouldn't work unless I had the phone menu displayed. And, most frustratingly, the "Back" button frequently sent me back to the home screen of many apps instead of just the prior menu—instead of finding another episode of Planet Money to listen to, I'd have to click Search, then find Planet Money, and then seek out a new episode.
But the key to putting the internet into a car isn't letting a driver do everything. It's streamlining those few tasks a driver wants to do. That's why, by the end of my week with the XC60, I'd grown comfortable with Volvo's quirky little interface. I'd tune into an indie rock station from Canada, or listen to dance music from Eastern Europe. I'd catch up with Morning Edition on my drive home, and stream some soothing jazz from Switzerland in the evenings.
With such a myriad of choices, it would be easy to get overwhelmed—especially while driving. Thankfully, Volvo's Sensus Connect keeps it simple.
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